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Dr. Robert L. Wolke

  • On August 30, 2021

Dr. Robert L. Wolke of Pittsburgh, PA died due to complications of Alzhiemer’s on August 29, 2021 at the age of 93. His lifelong curiosity about the world and love of science propelled him to careers as a professor of chemistry, author, and Washington Post columnist.

Bob Wolke was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 2, 1928, the son of Sophia Finkelstein Wolke and Harry Wolke and brother of Arthur Wolke, now 96 years old. After graduating as Salutatorian at Fort Hamilton High School, Bob earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now part of New York University) and his Ph.D. in Nuclear Chemistry at Cornell University.

Bob undertook post-doctoral research on nuclear reactions at the Enrico Fermi Institute of Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago, to which many prominent scientists had returned after working on the Manhattan Project. He recalled this as a historic and stimulating time, joking that he could not turn around without bumping into a Nobel Prizewinner.

After positions at General Atomic Division of General Dynamics, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the University of Florida, he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1960 to join the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh where he served as associate and full professor, founding director of the Wherrett Laboratory of Nuclear Chemistry, chair of the building committee for the Chevron Science Center, and director of the University’s Office of Faculty Development.

He served as academic dean on one of Pitt’s earliest Semester at Sea voyages (Fall, 1982), sailing around the world for 100 days. As dean, he planned the curriculum and recruited faculty from colleges and universities around the U.S.

As consultant to the USAID, the USIA and UNESCO, he carried out international education assignments in Puerto Rico, Venezuela (where he taught graduate-level chemistry in Spanish) and Bangladesh. In 1986 he was a resident fellow in French history and culture at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where he wrote a scientific analysis of Marie Curie’s doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne.

During his 30-year tenure at Pitt, Bob wrote and performed satirical monologues at administrators’ conferences and wrote wry columns in the University Times, earning the unofficial title of the University’s Comic Laureate. He enjoyed writing song parodies about current events with his longtime friends Ed and Wendy King for their annual Christmas parties.

At the age of 62, Bob left academe to devote full time to writing. He had already written two innovative textbooks: Impact: Science on Society, (1975) and Chemistry Explained, (1980). In 1990, he served as chemistry editor of the Gale Encyclopedia of Science.

In 1998 he was asked to write a biweekly food science column, “Food 101” for The Washington Post. In the syndicated column that ran for 10 years, he answered questions like “what’s special about sea salt?” and “what makes spices spicey?” Bob received The James Beard Foundation award for best newspaper food column in 2001.

The popularity of the column led to the “Einstein series” of trade books:

  • What Einstein Didn’t Know: Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions
  • What Einstein Told His Barber: More Scientific Answers to Everyday Questions
  • What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained
  • What Einstein Kept Under His Hat: Secrets of Science in the Kitchen

For the last two books, he received two nominations from the James Beard Foundation for best technical book (2003 and 2006). In 2005, Bob Wolke received the American Chemical Society’s Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public, a title that summed up his life-long pursuit of making science accessible and engaging.

As a science editor, he contributed to Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking published in 2011.

He met the love of his life, Marlene Parrish and they married in 1991. She was his ally, co-author, editor, and a true partner who enriched his life with travel, music, and many convivial times. His daughter, Leslie Wolke was always his favorite student, prompting many an ad hoc lecture with questions like “why is the sky blue?”

The family requests no flowers. Contributions may be made in his honor to his friend José Andrés’ charity, World Central Kitchen (donate.wck.org).

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Eleanor and Marshall Hershberg
Marlene, we are so sorry for your loss. What a remarkable man your husband was.
Liz Fedele
Marlene, Leslie, I am so sorry for your loss❤️ Robert loved you both so much. He brought light into my life with every haircut. I loved hearing about his life stories and will always treasure his books, especially “what Einstein told his Barber” 😊 He had such wisdom. RIP “kiddo”
Darla D'Anna
What a remarkable man. His life was truly an inspiration and his contributions impressive. Our neighborhood should be very proud.
Rosemarie Perla
Marlene and Leslie, Thank you for such a beautiful and impressive narrative of Bob's life and loves. He lent his talents generously to the world. Sending you both a warm hug of consolation and sympathy for the loss of Bob. I always enjoyed my conversations with him -- particularly seeing that twinkle in his eye when he told his stories.
Elaine Frantz
Dear Bob, I was completely dumbfounded upon reading about all of your brilliant accomplishments! Most surely, you will educate so many people in heaven. I only regret that I was not able to spend more time with you, perhaps only scratching the surface of your genius escapades. Please enjoy your time in heaven…your erudite conversations will be applauded. We shall all miss you, Bob, and know that you are with many friends and relatives. Love, Elaine and Bill
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